Habit took his feet south, put him on the Boulevard of the Ineffable Divine. He didn’t think Archeth would be back from An-Monal yet, but there was always Kefanin to talk to in the meantime. Ishgrim to leer at, if she chose to put in an appearance. And anyway, he reminded himself, a little sourly, it was his job to keep an eye on them all; it was the genteel pretence he and Archeth maintained – that his place as long-term house guest was paid out by informal security duties on her behalf.
That this amounted to not much more than being visible – and visibly Majak – about the place was not discussed. Nor were the small purses of silver coin that showed up regularly in the pockets of his attire, when it came back from cleaning and was laid out in his rooms.
He tried not to feel too much like a kept hound.
Truth was, the Citadel raid on Archeth’s household was the best part of three full seasons in the past now, and the way it had worked out, it seemed unlikely the same powers would try again. Menkarak and his kind had backed off. There was a ticklish equilibrium in place across Yhelteth these days, like some massive set of scales hanging in the sky above the city, one cupped, brass weighing bowl dipped over the imperial palace, the other riding the air above the raised crag and keep of the Citadel.
No-one wanted to disturb that balance if they could help it.
He felt it again – that same coiling restlessness, familiar but just out of reach.
Could always look for a real job, of course. Dragonbane.
He could, and with that name attached, there’d be no shortage of offers; you mostly had to look in graveyards for men called Dragonbane – the ones still walking around were few and far between. Any regiment in the city would kill to have one as a commander, or even a colour officer. But a command, even a sinecure command, would mean responsibility – requirements to attend reviews and a hundred other tedious regimental affairs of one beribboned sort or another, when he’d really rather just be out on a sun-soaked balcony somewhere, fucking Imrana or drinking and shooting the shit with Archeth. And a real command would be worse still – the way things were right now, he’d more than likely find himself deployed south to Demlarashan to supervise the slaughter of yet more deluded, poorly-armed young men who had evidently somehow not managed to get their fill of war last time around.
The war; the years as clanmaster back on the steppe afterwards – it still clogged him. It sat in his stomach and throat whenever he thought about it, the morning-after feel of too much undigested food and wine from some overblown feast the night before. He didn’t care if he never held another command in his life.
He was done giving other men orders.
Let the dumb fucks work it out themselves for a change.
He pitched up at Archeth’s place in no better mood than that. Got in off the crowded street, paused in the cool shadows of the gate arch to wipe sweat from neck and brow. The two young guardsmen stationed there nodded warily at him. More warily than you’d expect, given that he’d played dice with them a couple of times at shift change.
He forced a grin.
“Alright, lads? Seen the lady Archeth at all?”
The man on the left shook his head. “No word yet, my lord.”
Shrug. Kefanin, then.
He crossed the sun-struck cobbles of the courtyard, went inside and rattled about the house a bit until he finally discovered the eunuch talking to Ishgrim in one of the enclosed garden patios out back. Egar didn’t catch what they were discussing, but they seemed, to his jaundiced eye, to be getting on altogether too well for a young woman shaped the way Ishgrim was and a man with no balls. The slave-girl was laughing, tipping her long candle-wax coloured hair back from her eyes. Body curves shoving gratuitously at the yellow linen shift she wore, straining the material at hip and breast. Kefanin made some convoluted gesture with both hands, shook out a red silk handkerchief and spread his fingers wide so it hung between them. A small cascade of white rose petals drifted down onto the stone bench between them. Ishgrim gasped, clapped her hands like a small child. Her breasts gathered up and inward with the action, not like a small child at all. Egar felt a throb go through his groin at the sight.
Not what he need right now.
He coughed and made himself known.
The eunuch got hurriedly to his feet. “My lord.”
“No sign of Archeth, then?”
“No. Ordinarily, I would have expected her back by now, but….”
“But once she gets up there to that house full of phantoms, who the fuck can tell.” Egar’s voice came out gruffer than he’d intended. “Right?”
Kefanin’s lips pursed diplomatically.
“Would you care for some refreshment, my lord?”
“No, I’m good.” Egar glanced down at Ishgrim, wondering, not for the first time, where Archeth found her restraint. If the girl had been his slave – a gift of the emperor, no less, it doesn’t get much more legitimate than that – he would have plundered those curves fucking months ago. Would have lit her up like a steppe-storm sky, put a fucking smile on her face for once, instead of that perpetually downcast look she dragged around the house all the time like a bucket of used bath water.
Ishgrim flushed and shifted on the stone bench.
“Are you going to tell him?” she asked in a small voice.
Silence. Egar switched a glance between the two of them. “Tell me what?”
“It’s nothing, really.” Kefanin waved a dismissive hand. “Not worth-“
“Tell me what, Kef?
The mayordomo sighed. “Well, then. It seems we are being subjected to a little more clerical brinkmanship. The Citadel wish once more to remind us of their existence.”
“They’re out there again?” Egar hadn’t noticed coming in, and an odd sense of shame crept through him at the realisation. Some fucking hound, Eg. “Guys on the gate didn’t say a thing about it when I came in.”
Kefanin shrugged. “They are on loan from the palace. They don’t want unnecessary trouble.”
That ticklish fucking balance again. Egar remembered the wary looks the guardsmen had given him. Felt a fierce grin stitch itself onto his face.
“They think I’d cause unnecessary trouble?”
“My lord, I do not know if-“
“Leave it with me, Kef.”
Voice trailing out behind him as he walked away. Riding an upsurge of varying emotion now, at whose heart was that same vaguely familiar restlessness he couldn’t pin down. He strode back through the chambers and halls of the house. Across the blaze of the courtyard. Under the brief, cool caress of the arch, past the startled guardsmen – assholes – without a word. Out once more into the bustle and tramp of the street.
Paying attention now, he spotted them easily enough – there, under one of the acacia trees planted in twinned rows down the centre of the boulevard. The lean, drab-robed figure of the invigilator and, flanking him in the cooling puddle of shade, the inevitable brace of men-at-arms; cheap bulk and professional scowls, lightweight mail shirts under surplices with the Citadel crest, short-swords sheathed at the hip.
There was a twinned flicker of motion as both men clapped hand to sword hilt when they saw the big Majak come striding through the traffic towards them. Egar nodded grim approval, let them know he’d seen it, and then he was planted firmly in front of the invigilator.
“You’ve got the wrong house,” he said conversationally.
The invigilator’s face mottled with anger. “How do you dare to-“
“No, you’re not listening to me.” Egar kept his voice patient and gentle. “There’s obviously been some mistake back at the Citadel. Pashla Menkarak isn’t keeping you up to date. When he sent you down here, didn’t he tell you how dangerous it is to stand under this tree?”
The invigilator flashed an inadvertent glance up at the branches over his head. Egar dropped an amiable right arm onto his shoulder, just above the collar-bone. He dug in with his thumb. The invigilator uttered a strangled yelp. The men-at-arms came belatedly to life. One of them raised a meaty hand and grabbed Egar’s free arm.
Egar clubbed down with the blade of his right hand, felt the invigilator’s collar bone snap beneath the blow like a twig for kindling. The invigilator shrieked, collapsed in a sprawl of robes and choking pain. By then, Egar had already turned on the man-at-arms who’d grabbed him. He locked up the grasping hand with a Majak wrestling trick, put the man into the trunk of the tree face-first. The other man-at-arms was a heartbeat too slow reacting, and did entirely the wrong thing – he went for his sword. Egar swung a shoulder in with his full body weight behind it, trapped the man’s sword arm across his chest and smacked him in the temple with the heel of one palm. At the last moment, something made him pull the full force of the blow, and the man went down merely stunned.
Meanwhile, the one he’d put face-first into the tree was still on his feet, blood streaming from a broken nose, and he’d also decided it was time to bring out the steel. He got the sword a hands-breadth out of its scabbard and then the Dragonbane kicked his legs out from under him. He went down in a sudden heap. Egar stepped in and kicked him again in the head, which seemed to take care of things.
Behind him, the invigilator was still screeching and thrashing about on the ground in his robes like some kind of beached manta ray. An interested crowd was starting to form. Egar looked up and down the street for reinforcements, saw none, positioned himself carefully and kicked the robed form hard in the guts. The screaming stopped, was replaced by a ruptured puking sound. Egar planted another solid kick, higher this time, and felt a couple of ribs snap against his boot. Then he crouched beside the invigilator, grabbed him by the throat and dragged him in close.
“Look up there,” he said bleakly, and jerked the man’s head upward for emphasis. “Pay attention, because I’m only going to go through this once. See that window? Second floor, third across from the arch? That’s my room. It looks directly out onto the street, right here. Now I know that you people and the lady of this house have some prior history, but here’s the thing: I don’t fucking care. And more importantly, I don’t want to have to look out of that window and see your scowling face fucking up my view. Got it?”
Gritted teeth snarl. “I have an ordained right-“
Egar slapped the rest of the sentence out of the man’s mouth.
“We’re not discussing rights, my friend. Do I look like a lawyer to you? We’re talking here about a polite and reasonable personal request I’m making, to you and all your bearded chums. Stay the fuck away from this house. Take that back to Menkarak, make sure he spreads it around. Because anyone who doesn’t get the message, I will be forced to hurt, probably very badly. And if you ever come back here again.” The Dragonbane dug his index fingernail in under the invigilator’s chin and lifted his face closer. Looked into his eyes to make it stick. “Well, then I’ll kill you. Okay?”
From the man’s face, he judged the message conveyed.
He got up, looked around at the tumbled, twitching bodies, and the goggling crowd that had gathered.
“Show’s over,” he said brusquely. “Nothing to see here.”
And there it was, something in the words as he spoke them, some echo of the elusive feeling he’d been carrying around all day – which now slid out from the shadows and took on recognisable form.
Bored, he realised with a slight shock. Dragonbane – you are bored.